Art

The Seduction of Screens and Neon at Night

Installation view, 'Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green' (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green’ at the KAGRO building (photo courtesy the artist)

BALTIMORE — Around seven in the evening, dusky pink light and car headlights from North Avenue ricochet off the glass walls of the KAGRO building, adding an extra layer of nuance to Victoria Fu’s Bubble Over Green. As the sky goes dark, two neon sculptures take on an acidic glow. Reflected on marble floors, a video loops in, projecting circular patterns like a digital disco ball. High above your head, another video, richly saturated, flows and fizzes, like an animated entablature from an ancient temple. The walls in this place of worship are mostly empty, but the experience is sublime at the right time of day.

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Exterior view of ‘Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green’ inside the KAGRO building (all images courtesy The Contemporary unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

A building with glass walls is a curious choice for an exhibition of three videos and two neon sculptures, but Baltimore’s newly resuscitated Contemporary (museum) has taken on a number of ambitious challenges since relaunching in 2014. After a year of collaborating with artist-run galleries in Baltimore (cat herding at its best) to produce a series of free talks and studio visits with a dozen internationally known artists like Coco Fusco, Nick Cave, and the Guerilla Girls, pressure mounted for the The Contemporary, as it is now known, to produce an exhibition. A history of past success, including Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum in 1992, which won international acclaim and culminated in Wilson’s US representation at the Venice Biennale in 2003, is a tough act to follow and an unfair comparison, but pressure nonetheless. Thankfully, the new staff at The Contemporary, made up of director Deana Haggag, program manager Ginevra Shay, and business manager Lu Zhang, pursued a distinct direction with Los Angeles–based artist Victoria Fu for its first exhibition.

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Victoria Fu, still from “Velvet Peel 1” (2015)

Bubble Over Green is just curious enough to provoke commentary, with a cinematic quality that’s both familiar and stunning. Fu elevates the modern fetishization with touch screens, while issues of appropriation, narrative, and site specificity float into the mix without being overtly addressed. The centerpiece is the giant horizontal “Velvet Peel 1” (2015) a video projected high above your head like a frieze. The screen, built specifically for this exhibition, is 50 feet long and 6 feet tall, and placed dramatically above a blank two-story wall. Fu has become well known for appropriating stock video available for free on the internet into cinematic, non-narrative projections including “Belle Captive 1,” which was shown in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. In the new video, she has incorporated her own footage of performers and choreographers, but it scarcely matters. Like many of her past works, the video is luscious with color and texture and flows in a nonlinear fashion, like a good acid trip. Whether you catch ripe fruit, lush vegetation, or a female posterior in jeans, “Velvet Peel 1” draws you into a world of opaque visual pleasure. What’s most interesting about this piece is the power it achieves through the same techniques (and probably some of the same video footage) that advertisers use to sell their projects. Considering the power of the screen — any kind of screen — in everyday life is humbling, but the realization that Fu is exploiting that power and the technique of television advertising in her own work is delicious.

Installation view, ‘Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green,’ with excerpt of “Velvet Peel 2” (2015) in foreground and “Velvet Peel 1” across top

Two other videos are featured in Bubble Over Green, including one with the same title (from 2015) that’s displayed quietly on a flat screen in the back room of the building. While it’s ridiculous to consider projecting a second video to rival the mojo of “Velvet Peel 1,” this setup feels rather ordinary in comparison, despite compelling content. Like a vision of Bob Ross with Photoshop, colors spray in, semi-transparent masks and textures appear, and more colors and patterns are applied, while a hand, presumably the artist’s, moves layers around. It’s entertaining to watch but feels small. The display of the third video is much more captivating — it’s almost a challenge to discover it. Projected intermittently onto the floor in the same room as the giant frieze, “Velvet Peel 2” (2015) appears as moving circular patterns that coalesce and dissipate before your eyes can translate them. It works as a terrific companion piece in the space and gives your peripheral vision something to do while making you more aware of the unique architectural elements of the KAGRO building’s Brutalist architecture.

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Victoria Fu, “Ribbon-Swipe” (2015) (photo courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Two large neon sculptures are the outliers in this show and at first seem too hip and vapid to be taken seriously. “Pinch-Zoom” (2015) depicts a glowing blue-green hand that blinks with thumb and forefinger together and then apart, a now common touch-screen motion to enlarge an image. “Ribbon-Swipe” (2015) is hot pink and resembles the Lichtenstein paint swoosh sculpture, an awkward attempt at monumentalizing the act of painting. In this case, Fu continues her focus on screen physiology, creating a tribute to the thinking process that occurs with a swipe of the finger. Whether they’re intended to be sincere or ironic, these two neon beauties function as shrines to a human future married to technology. Maybe in a few years these motions will become synonymous with the act of thinking? Maybe we’re on the cusp of a new form of tactile sign language? They may be cute monuments to distraction, but what’s serious about these pieces is their suggestion that the human brain — possibly our whole understanding of cognition and language — is being altered by the screens we interact with on a more than daily basis.

Especially since the exhibition can only be seen at night (a challenge for those of us with vicious schedules), Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green achieves a status of magical ridiculousness that few art exhibitions in recent memory have matched. It successfully transforms a building previously unused for years into a conundrum of technology, desire, and luxuriance, a world where video screens serve as both medium and concept. Even if you have no interest in the impact of tactile technology or the significance of the screen in modern communication, this visual playground is still a stunner. The calibrated presence of color, texture, chiaroscuro, and drama — both in the work itself and its relation to the Kagro’s architectural details — creates a sensual delight, much like the very best advertisements.

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Victoria Fu, “Bubble Over Green” (2015)

Victoria Fu: Bubble Over Green continues at the KAGRO building (101 W North Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland) through April 3. A closing reception will take place on March 27, 7–10pm.

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